OHSU Receives $3.6 Million to Investigate Effectiveness of Random Drug Tests on High School Athletes

08/10/99    Portland, Ore.

Researchers hope to find decreased drug use in high school students as a result of drug tests.

Drug testing is a multibillion-dollar business, with money being spent for testing in college sports, the Olympics, business, the military and federal agencies. The United States Supreme Court's 1995 decision, involving the Vernonia, Ore., school district, allowed drug testing of student athletes and provided schools with a new and potentially strong weapon to stop the epidemic of alcohol and drug use among students involved in sports. Though at least some schools in most states are testing athletes at the high school level, no evidence has been gathered about the effect of drug testing on substance abuse. The National Institute of Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health just awarded $3.6 million to researchers at Oregon Health Sciences University. The Student Athlete Testing Using Random Notification (SATURN) study will examine the effects of drug testing in high schools during a five-year period beginning with the 1999-2000 school year. The collaborative study involves OHSU, Arizona State University, Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research in Oregon, and the University of California at Los Angeles.

Led by principal investigators Linn Goldberg, M.D., professor of medicine and head of the division of Health Promotion and Sports Medicine at OHSU, and Diane Elliot, M.D., professor of medicine at OHSU, the SATURN study will follow more than 10,000 students at 24 schools in Oregon and Washington using the Olympic model of random, unannounced drug testing. Students will be subject to testing throughout the entire school year, but they will not know when they will be tested. It will be based on a lottery system.

Both Goldberg and Elliot are certified crew chiefs for the United States Olympic Committee and have been working with young athletes for the past 12 years. They developed the ATLAS program, an effective drug education model for male athletes, and are beginning the ATHENA study to develop a similar program for adolescent female athletes.

The SATURN study is not a typical education program, it is an examination of the effect drug testing has on drug and alcohol use in high schools. "Drug testing may be an effective deterrent for substance abuse among high school athletes, but we can't confirm that without studying it," said Goldberg. "If it is effective, it can provide athletes with an acceptable way to resist peer pressure and say no to drugs and alcohol."

"Our research group has traditionally focused on promoting healthy diet and exercise and in teaching drug resistance skills to athletes," says Greg Clarke, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research. "SATURN represents an exciting new direction for us, which we hope will lead to a direct comparison of these two very different ways to reduce adolescent drug use."

A survey conducted by Goldberg and Elliot in 1997 of approximately 1,300 student athletes suggests drug testing may be a deterrent to substance abuse. While 60 percent of students used alcohol and 25 percent reported marijuana, only nine percent said they would continue using drugs or alcohol if testing was required at their school.

The SATURN study will also look at the effect of drug testing of high school athletes on other students. "Student athletes represent nearly 50 percent of a school's enrollment and are often opinion leaders. An athlete's abstinence may influence other students to avoid drugs as well," said Elliot.

"Although drug testing young athletes is a hotly debated topic, testing is being done all over the country," Goldberg said, "It is important that schools learn whether or not this type of program works to reduce drug and alcohol use. If it can identify kids who are experimenting with drugs, it could greatly assist parents and schools to get them help. If testing does not work, scarce prevention dollars can be used for other scientifically established programs that work." The SATURN study will provide the first scientific evidence regarding the effect random drug testing of student athletes has in schools. This evidence will also be valuable to many other industries that require drug testing.

Note to Editors: To arrange interviews with Drs. Goldberg and Elliot, please call Christine Long at 503-494-8231. To interview Greg Clarke, Ph.D., please call Jim Gersbach at 503-813-4820.